(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick. Directed by Lone Scherfig
There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.
It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.
This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.
Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.
This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.
Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.
Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.
However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.
The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.
The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.
WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2